As lawmakers scramble to avoid threatened nukes shutdown, Pritzker pitches plan that would cost ComEd ratepayers nearly $3 more a month

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With lawmakers set to return to Springfield next week to vote on an energy policy overhaul, an outline of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s latest plan shows customers would pay nearly $3 more per month on their power bills, in part to fund a multimillion-dollar bailout of nuclear plants owned by the parent of scandal-plagued Commonwealth Edison.

A memo from the governor’s office sent Thursday to a group of lawmakers made clear that no deal has been reached on a proposal that aims to set the state on a path to Pritzker’s goal of 100% carbon-free energy by 2050. In addition, Senate Democrats were drafting their own version to bring to the table.

Pressure is mounting because ComEd parent Exelon has said it will shut down its Byron and Dresden nuclear plants this year if it doesn’t get more help from the state because it says they can’t compete with cheaper power from carbon-emitting coal and natural gas plants.

If lawmakers choose to have legislation take effect immediately to stave off Exelon’s threats, the bill would require a three-fifths majority in each chamber, making an agreement that much harder to reach.

The outline of Pritzker’s plan, which has yet to be formally introduced in the legislature, emphasizes that the governor won’t budge on one of the largest remaining sticking points: the mandatory shutdown of coal-fired power plants, including the Prairie State Generating Station in southern Illinois, by 2035.

A disagreement on that issue scuttled a potential deal in the final hours of the General Assembly’s spring session, with some lawmakers pushing for an exemption for Prairie State because suburban and downstate communities that invested in the facility would still be paying off bonds after it shut down.

“An exemption for the nation’s seventh-largest polluter remains unacceptable to the governor, as well as the nearly 50 legislators that have indicated they will not support a bill that does so,” the unsigned memo from the governor’s office says. “The governor stands ready to sign this bill should the General Assembly choose to pass it next week in Springfield.”

The memo’s proposal contains many ideas in a plan Pritzker laid out earlier this spring, including a push for more investment in wind and solar energy, a $4,000 rebate for electric vehicle buyers, and new ethics and accountability provisions for utilities in the wake of the ComEd scandal.

ComEd last summer agreed to pay a $200 million fine and admitted in federal court that it engaged in a yearslong bribery scheme aimed at currying favor with then-House Speaker Michael Madigan in hopes of advancing its agenda in Springfield. Madigan has not been charged and denies any wrongdoing.

Less than a year later, Pritzker has agreed to give Exelon nearly $700 million in subsidies over five years for three of its nuclear plants, including Exelon’s Braidwood facility. That’s double the roughly $350 million for the Byron and Dresden plants recommended earlier this year in an independent audit commissioned by Pritzker’s office, though the governor’s office says it “fits within the parameters” of the report.

Those subsidies would cost the average residential power customer about 80 cents per month, according to the outline from the governor’s office.

In addition, residential power customers would be on the hook for about $1.22 per month to double subsidies for renewable energy development and another 86 cents per month for expanded home weatherization programs for low-income customers.

The governor’s memo also says $2 million per year from customers would go toward the cost of shutting down Prairie State, but the impact on individual customers’ bills was unclear.

The governor’s plan would require the Illinois Commerce Commission to investigate whether ComEd used customer money to fund any of the conduct covered in its deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. attorney’s office, and if so force the company to pay it back.

A major difference in the Senate draft is that it would require ComEd to pay a $300 million fine into a customer assistance fund. A spokesman for Senate President Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat, said talks would continue through the weekend.

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Pritzker defended the increased nuclear plant subsidies in an interview with the Tribune earlier this month.

“The negotiations here have been about making sure that we can keep our plants open, keep people working and address — this is really the most important part of this — addressing climate change, and keeping the plants open is part of that effort,” he said.

The Byron and Dresden plants together employ 1,500 full-time workers, along with about 2,000 temporary workers during refueling, according to Exelon. Many of those workers are in high-paying union jobs.

The nuclear plants are in predominantly Republican districts but employ many of the majority Democrats’ ardent supporters in organized labor, creating a political dilemma for lawmakers in both parties who want to avoid the appearance of doing the company’s bidding.

One of the key victories for ComEd during the years it has acknowledged engaging in a bribery scheme was an energy overhaul signed into law in 2016 by then-Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner that included a bailout for the company’s Clinton and Quad Cities nuclear plants. Pritzker has argued that the subsidies he’s agreed to are substantially lower than those his predecessor approved.

The other major policy change approved during that time was the creation of so-called formula rates. Rather than having to go before state regulators to win approval of a rate increase, formula rates guaranteed the company would reap higher profits from customers as it spent more on energy grid upgrades.

The governor’s office says its plan would end formula rates and empower the ICC to set rates based on performance measures approved by the agency.

But advocates say that unlike the governor’s original proposal, the new iteration doesn’t completely do away with the negative consequences of formula rates.

“Unfortunately, the draft legislation continues key formula rate policies that guarantee ComEd’s profits, while also increasing their profit levels,” Abe Scarr, director of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, a consumer watchdog, said in a statement. “We will be releasing more analysis soon, and urge the governor and legislative leaders to remove policies that guarantee utility profits from the final bill.”

A new analysis done on behalf of a group suing ComEd suggests the power company stands to net more than 25 times the amount of its $200 million fine in the bribery case because of the previous legislation.

The report, completed for plaintiffs in a class-action suit seeking to recover some of the money ComEd collected through that legislation, found the company already has made more than $5 billion through energy bills passed in 2011 and 2016, with consumers set to pay another $12 billion over the next few decades.

The numbers largely square with a recent report from Illinois PIRG that said the legislation allowed ComEd to glean $4.7 billion more between 2013 and 2019 than it would have earned under the previous rate structure.

The Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act, which was passed in 2011, was the most costly to consumers, generating more than $4 billion for ComEd, according to the plaintiffs’ analysis. Since its passage, the rate base has nearly doubled, according to the report.

“They made $17 billion on their corrupt scheme and only paid a $200 million fine,” said Stephan Blandin, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys in the class-action lawsuit. “If I’m a businessman, I’ll take that deal every day of the week.”

Blandin said he wants legislators to understand the scandal’s full cost before rewarding ComEd with additional help.

“The stakes are too high on this issue to proceed without acknowledging the scope of this bribery and how it financially harmed consumers and businesses in ways that haven’t been explained until now,” Blandin said.

The Senate is scheduled to return to the Capitol for a vote Tuesday, and negotiations were expected to continue through the weekend. The House is set to return Wednesday.

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Region: Decatur,City: Decatur,Politics,Region: Central

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June 11, 2021 at 11:09PM

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